Egyptian Muslim Women in the Mosque Educational Space

Saba Mahmood engages the discursive tradition of Islam with a particular focus on Egyptian girls and women in the mosque movement. Analyses of the discursive tradition treats with importance several areas such as texts (foundational and other), actors (who speak, think, use language, and texts), dramas, processes of reasoning used to produce knowledge and solve practical issues, and power relations that influence knowledge production. Several of these areas Mahmood engages in her fieldwork reflections on the Egyptian girls and women. For instance, she analyses the forms of reasoning and modes of persuasion participants in the mosque movement employ to convince themselves and others of the truth of their religious discourse (1). She also wants to identify the sorts of practical consequences when discourse is argumentatively established. Mahmood identifies some limitations facing girls and women in the mosque movement, although she too argues that the lessons within these spaces challenge notions of religious indoctrination.

Egyptian Women in the Mosque Educational Space

In Egypt there is an absence of religious institutions training women in scholarly Islamic arguments. However, Mamood observes some promising changes, which is that more women are finding the means to engage and familiarize themselves with canonical Muslim sources, such as the Qur’an, Hadith, commentaries, and pedagogics of exemplary figures. Mamood thus zones in her study of the women’s mosque movement on several individuals who are active da’iyats (women teachers) in the Ayesha and Nafisa mosques in Cairo.

One important da’iyat is Hajja Faiza, who teaches other women lessons in Islamic doctrine and law (2). Faiza is brave as she challenges patriarchal assumptions that women are incapable of adopting a leadership role in some capacity. She also leads prayers and during the month of Ramadan around 300 women attend nightly to pray with her, perhaps making Faiza the only woman in Cairo to do this in a well-known mosque. This has been controversial as Faiza has still lead prayer when a male imam is present. According to some schools of Islamic law, a woman is to step aside if a male is available to lead prayers. Although mostly unopposed, the Egyptian government has made it difficult on occasion for Faiza by shutting down her gatherings. She has too been confronted by some women attendees and the popular imam Shaikh Karma, who all claim that for a woman to teach while an imam is present is to go against the Prophet’s example. However, Faiza retorts that three schools of law (Shaifi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali) allow a woman to lead other women in prayer.

There are women elsewhere active in this educational space. At the Ayesha Mosque, located in one of the poorest suburbs of Cairo, there are informal and unstructured lessons provide for working classing women several times a week. Lessons include an engagement with various topics from the correct performance of rituals to how one should could oneself with friends, family, and neighbours. Lessons also include edifying stories from the life of the Prophet and his Companions, and it is a space for the women to raise concerns about social issues such as incest, sexual problems, and neighbourhood skirmishes. These lessons often result in lively debate and disagreements, even between the women attendees and the da’iyat.

Another mosque, Nafisa, is home to da’iyats known for their stern and severe style of preaching. These da’iyats often select the most exacting position from a range of juristic opinions and then deliver it to their class with exhortatory force. These lessons are organized for girls and women from the age of fifteen upwards to twenty-two and the class visits important Islamic architectural sites, museums, and has Qur’anic memorization and recitation contests. Questions around ethics are important. For example, the idea of “mixing and blending” (ikthilat), referring to ethical conduct governing relations between men and women who are not related by immediate kin ties, is controversial for the women and evokes much emotion. The Qur’an commands women to keep veiled and to behave modestly in public, and this includes avoiding eye contact when interacting with a man (24:31). This instruction is to be obeyed by the women at universities where and when they interact with their male tutors and lecturers, hence why, according to the Nafisa da’iyats, it is preferable for them to find a female tutor. The Nafisa da’iyats criticize the way the government runs the country’s universities. Because the university space is not segregated it becomes a threat to pious behaviour. However, neither the da’iyats nor the women attendees feel that women should not pursue university studies if and when they have the opportunity to do so. Lessons at the Nafisa mosque witness lively, animated debates. Many of the girls and women argue with the da’iyats as some of them try to bolster their case by appealing to canonical sources, such as sound Hadith. They also argue from contextualization saying that the context of Muslims today differs from the historical context of the Prophet and his Companions. What applied to women in that day does not necessarily apply to women living in today’s world.

Relations Between Men and Women

Much of Islamic tradition sees women as instigators of illicit sexual desire (3). From this perspective, men are the desiring subjects, women the objects of desire, hence the reason for the latter’s responsibility of maintaining the sanctity of relations between the sexes. Women should “hide their charms” for illicit sexual relations creates social discord and sedition (fitna), which are signs of moral degeneracy. Women are referred to in the Hadith as ‘aura, which can mean “weakness”, “faultiness”, “imperfection”, or “genitalia”. According to Mahmood: “The injunctions for women to veil, dress modestly, avoid eye contact with men, and so on, all constitute practical strategies through which danger of women’s sexuality poses to the Muslim community is deterred” (4). Because men are seen as more sexually excitable in public than women, social rules have been put in place as a means to avoid men making sexual transgressions. Those seen to challenge this logic are considered to be outside of the fold of Islam, as either being “secularist” or “un-Islamic”. The dynamics of this men-women logic is concerning to many Muslim women and feminists. Feminists claim this gives power to men over women and affirms a social norm in which men are seen as superior and with the power over women’s sexuality, mobility, and access to the community’s symbolic and material resources.

In the women’s mosque movement, the notion of the female’s sexual provocation has witnessed the emergence of various views on the Hadith concerning interactions between men and women. Some Muslim women interpret it as the avoidance of all interactions between men and women. To others it means to limit and restrict such interactions as much as possible. Some of the women attending the lessons raised concerns that these two interpretations make daily practical life incredibly challenging, especially for women in careers and professions where they have to interact with men. Yet other women interpret the Hadith to support the need for greater vigilance of the interactions between men and women, but never to command a full-blown prohibition of male-female relations. These women argue that the Prophet interacted with women, sometimes alone, so there should be little issue doing this today if one’s intentions are pure. Debate continues today over whether or not it is prohibited for a man and woman to meet alone.

Freedom and Liberty

Faiza’s approach, says Mahmood, is to find wiggle room in topics that are debatable because of their unclear status in the Qur’an or in the Sunna (5). Her approach provides a greater sense of liberty and freedom to choose while still providing a space for the women to use reasoning, logic, and debate. Faiza’s preferred method is to use debate and discussion to facilitate her lessons. She wishes to open up dialogue on the various interpretations of canonical sources that exist among jurists. Despite the freedom inherent in allowing the women to reason to various interpretations of canonical sources, this always commences within the appropriate boundaries set by judiciaries and the four schools of legal thought. The goal is always to live consistently with the perfect example set by Muhammad and to place oneself outside these boundaries is to go beyond what is acceptable for the Muslim community. Thus, keeping within the boundaries, Faiza adopts orthodox views where canonical teachings are more clear, such as on wearing the veil or the wife’s subordination to her husband.


What can one say in reflection of Mahmood’s insights on the women’s mosque movement in Cairo? Fascinating it is that these women and the da’iyats have contributed to encouraging jurists to address new areas of “problematizations” in law (6). This evidences a process of negotiation taking place through debates, discussions, and various interpretations of canonical texts. The mosque movement space has enabled some women to adopt proactive roles in a patriarchal Egyptian society. Some feminists share concerns over education, especially that received by Muslim girls and women. The mosque movement has alleviated a few of these concerns by assisting girls and women to engage in a range of procedures, terminologies, and modes of reasoning (7).

Mahmood claims that the lessons in the women’s mosque movement, at least in the cases of Faiza and in the Ayesha and Nafisa mosques, are not tantamount to religious indoctrination. Debate is welcomed, as is the freedom to learn more about the Muslim sources and arguments. Although one can respect this freedom, it is a freedom of a very limited type in light of the strict juridical boundaries policing what positions of interpretation are appropriate versus what are not. Is this really a profound ideological freedom to follow evidence or reason where it leads if it only Muslim sources that one is allowed to use? Is it freedom if the law obligates everyone to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, or to reason within the four schools of Islamic law? For most Western readers the answer to this question would be no. It would be safe to say that most contemporary Westerners would find their freedom of expression and of religion severely diminished if their modes of reasoning were stringently policed by the Church and how it interpreted its sacred texts.


  1. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 112-113.
  2. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. ibid. p. 87.
  3. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Ibid. p. 87-90.
  4. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Ibid. p. 111.
  5. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Ibid. p. 110.
  6. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Ibid. p. 99.
  7. Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Ibid. p. 106.

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